Where’s My Robot?

jetsons_rosie

Leo McGarry: My generation never got the future it was promised… Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don’t even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.

Josh Lyman: The personal computer…

Leo McGarry: A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography? Where’s my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?

— The West Wing, “The Warfare of Genghis Khan” (2004)

The exchange above is from one of my favorite TV shows of all time. It is not the first time the sentiment has been expressed. It is a recurring trope in television and other media. There is even a rock band of the name We Were Promised Jetpacks. But the question ventures beyond jetpacks to other types of futuristic technologies contemplated in fiction such as The Jetsons and Back to the Future II.

Where are the hover cars and jetpacks? Where is the phantom renewable energy source that can light cities and power intergalactic travel? Progress with the former seems stunted to small planes with retractable wings that  function amphibiously on roads. Jetpack flights are still seen as dangerous events undertaken only by daredevils. Both are just too impractical. Technologically, making a car stop in mid-air the way breaks function on roads seems to press too hard against the laws of physics. Logistically, taking plane-cars to a runway every day would not save time or speed up travel as expected, and the FAA’s mandate of 1,000 feet of vertical separation between planes would create serious traffic issues. Plus, the safety issues are many.

As for that alternative energy source, finding it might help speed up things with that hover car mid-air stop. But instead, we are relegated to a fight among solar, wind, hydropower, and a host of potentially controversial alternatives. No mystery source seems any closer. Sure there have been positive strides made with hybrid cars and a concerted effort to reduce our carbon footprint. Public market interest in Tesla is exciting but certainly not determinative in any way. (Remember when First Solar’s market cap was 10x what it is today?)

Of course, there has been progress. This entire conversation seems to forget about the tremendous advances in medicine and life sciences. The mapping of the human genome last decade may eventually prove to be the source of cures and remedies for invasive diseases—even cancer. Outside medicine, even if the rapid exchange of information and communications was not as popular a topic among science fiction writers of 50 years ago, it is hard to deny the impact of the Internet.

The frustration with software-based advances stems from their iterative nature. It is probably true that rapid and repeated improvements made to how we socially network, shop, or are targeted by advertisers do not really move the needle on human progress. But the transfer of everything—all our records, behaviors, and conduct— to digital may help us attain one of those futuristic visions from the past just yet: artificial intelligence.

The demand and investment in data scientists can make us better at predicting behavior baed on past and concurrent data. It can make us better at breaking down unstructured data that does not come with neat labels and meta context (e.g., videos or prose).  While I have not spent time with the machine learning folks at MIT or NYU’s Courant Institute, I believe that focusing on these data processes should improve computer generalization, which can eliminate the need for human interaction with data in favor of machines that can navigate new problems or situations simply by learning from experiences with past ones. If this sounds familiar, it should. After all, is that not how we as humans adapt and know how to respond when encountering new, strange situations?

The theory behind artificial intelligence is vast and machine learning is but one aspect, and both are beyond my capabilities. However, the point is that even though the ability to extract raw data dumps about almost anything imaginable might not seem incredibly exciting, the Internet’s and social networking’s facilitation in creating copious amounts of commercially valuable data for analysis may, as a byproduct, jumpstart interest in STEM education and true innovation. And if the improvement in human knowledge and skill that results from this catalyst is to lead to any of sci-fi literature’s promises, it is most logically going to be artificial intelligence.

Whether going down this road leads us to jovial Bender bots or Matrix or Terminator like robot overlords is for you to speculate. Cue ominous end titles . . .

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Money to Blow . . . on Coursepacks?

When I was an investment banking analyst, the expectation was that I blew my discretionary income on nightlife. As a student, the expectation is that I am cheap.  Still, even students can have indulgences.  Mine are overpriced lattes and of course, new textbooks.

Whatever may be said about the monotony of reading thousands of pages of court cases that is law school, one benefit of spending hundreds of dollars on casebooks every semester is that it is less psychologically unsettling than spending hundreds on coursepacks as I did in undergrad.  Coursepacks (in undergraduate business school anyway) comprised business articles from sources such as the Wall Street Journal, some academic papers, and Harvard Business School (HBS) case studies.  Spending anywhere from $100 to $200 on these materials per course seemed silly—partly because so many of those articles could be found for free online and partly because of the flimsiness of their binding and presentation relative to real textbooks.  (After all, Jay Gatsby didn’t stock his library with shoddily binded computer paper.)

Honestly, I can’t complain about having to pay for the HBS case studies because a decent amount of sweat goes into collecting the real-world data and organizing it for a small audience.  The limited distribution of the cases relative to a Dan Brown novel forces a price markup with which I can live.  However, the fact remains that you are also paying for many free, publicly available materials.  The other problem is a more general one with education:  in most courses, you only ever reference a couple of the HBS cases but still pay for the other five.

Some renegade professors surreptitiously post supplemental articles on course management websites such as Blackboard.  The more circumspect ones post links to those articles.  But these are rare cases because professors generally have nothing to lose in selecting material and forcing students to buy expensive coursepacks (except a few negative course evaluations); whereas, if they distribute copyrighted material, they risk violating school policies and the law.

While copyright law, through fair use and exceptions for educational uses, gives some room for copying, courts have likely made the practice of circumventing coursepacks by professors an even greater rarity.[1]

There is much talk about education in the United States needing serious repair:

–          In light of the financial crisis of 2008, there has been commentary on the ‘Wall Street brain drain’—the trend of excessive numbers of young and bright Americans heading to work in finance.

–          In response, initiatives in support of science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) have been announced.

–          Occupy Wall Street has reinvigorated an argument that has never really gone away, which is that student loans, and implicitly college expenses, are just too high.

I think it is undeniable that education needs reform.  Although the bullet points above are mostly relevant to higher education, maladies infect the entire system.

The last bullet resonates with me most.  The first two issues would directly benefit from the lowering of higher education costs.  Greater financial flexibility means greater flexibility in contemplating different careers and taking courses in subjects of interest.  I think it’s safe to say that a vast majority of folks headed to finance go there for money and opportunity rather than enthusiasm for the vocation.  Allowing people to educate themselves in things that they find exciting is more likely to lead to innovation, opportunity, and an economy that is not dominated by the financial sector.

Our liberal arts education system is predicated upon this diversity of interests.  I will be the first to admit that sometimes too much curricular flexibility causes a neglect of the less ‘sexy’ subjects, such as STEM.  However, I posit that if quality education were cheaper even STEM would benefit from a boost in popularity.

Peter Thiel, former Pay-Pal co-founder, has commented that education is in a cost bubble.  I don’t doubt him.  Paying $200 for 200 pages of paper, of which only 20 pages ever benefited my mind, is appalling.  Perhaps, inflated coursepack pricing isn’t the fault of educators as much as it is the cost of copyright law.  However, it is just another symptom of a bloated and inefficient educational system. (Another example is schools paying premium salaries to professors for their research rather than teaching ability.  Schools again may be the victims rather than the culprits because they are merely trying to improve their reputations, which though superficial, may be just as important as quality education.)

I am not advocating skipping college. (As a grad student, I would be a hypocrite if I did).  Although not attending college may make sense for an elite few, I do think the vast majority of Americans could benefit from the networks and job opportunities colleges and some types of vocational training can create.  I advocate instead for a massive retrenchment.

How?

I have no clue.  Maybe that’s my cue to go occupy Wall Street.


[1] See, e.g., Princeton University Press v. Michigan Document Services 99 F.3d 1381 (6th Cir. 1996)